Lack of information stifles organic sector

GUELPH, Ont. — It’s pathetic that Canadian organic farmers aren’t getting the information they need to support their multibillion-dollar industry, says the executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario.

“Given the good news story of organic and the consumer demand, it’s shameful that … more of what’s consumed in Canada isn’t grown in Canada,” Jodi Koberinski told the Guelph Organic Conference at the University of Guelph in early February.

The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2012 report determined that Canadians spent $2.6 billion on organic products in 2010, making Canada the world’s fifth largest market for organic food.

However, 75 percent of those organic products are imported.

That percentage might drop if Canadian organic farmers adopted best management practices, which is partly why conference organizers planned for a three-hour seminar on agricultural extension.

Koberinski said during the seminar that the extension model of conventional agriculture, where company reps share knowledge and expertise with growers, doesn’t translate to organic production.

“The reason we haven’t seen the information spread as quickly about the benefits of organic management, is there is no financial incentive for anyone to go out and provide that training.”

As a result, organic growers have to rely on government, universities and industry associations for information.

However, Hugh Martin, a former soil and crop specialist and organic program lead with Ontario Agriculture, said provincial governments don’t want to show too much affection for organics because 98 to 99 percent of Canadian producers are conventional farmers.

“Specific funding for organic is tricky for government,” said Martin, who is a consultant and organic inspector in Guelph.

He said it’s tricky because organic health claims are controversial and politicians avoid controversy.

Participants at the Guelph seminar said provincial governments employ organic experts, but they often specialize in developing markets for organic products rather than providing growers with agronomic assistance.

As well, university professors specialize in organic research, but extension is normally a small component of their job.

Which leads back to the private sector as a vehicle for extension.

Tom Manley, who owns Homestead Organics, a farm supply and advisory service near Cornwall, Ont., said many organic farmers don’t trust agribusiness.

“I would argue that one of the weakest links in the organic extension process is the farmer,” Manley told the conference.

He said organic producers are independent, self-reliant people who strive for self-sufficiency, but doing everything on their own and refusing to buy inputs or take advice will only take them so far.

Koberinski disagreed, saying the success of the Guelph conference proves organic growers want help.

“The farms who get in and innovate … they go out and seek that information. This why this conference has been going on for 32 years.”

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